World

Centre-right Stubb leads Finland’s presidential vote in early results

2024.02.11 14:09

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© Reuters. NCP presidential candidate Alexander Stubb campaigns in Helsinki, Finland, January 11, 2024. Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen via REUTERS

2/5

By Anne Kauranen and Essi Lehto

HELSINKI (Reuters) -Alexander Stubb of the centre-right National Coalition Party led in the run-off vote for Finland’s next president on Sunday, with 52.7% support in early results, justice ministry data showed.

The liberal Green Party member Pekka Haavisto was behind him at 47.3% support, with 63.2% of the votes counted, the data showed.

Finland is electing a new head of state who will also be responsible for its security and foreign policy. The winner is expected to be known by around 2100 GMT.

Stubb, a former prime minister, won the first round on Jan. 28 with 27.2% of the vote ahead of Haavisto on 25.8%. He has also led Haavisto in surveys, most recently by 6-8 percentage points.

“A very good start to this evening. That feels good at the moment but there are still plenty of votes to be counted,” Stubb said after seeing the early results.

Haavisto remained hopeful.

“We are starting from a bit behind but it’s still possible to catch up in the election day votes,” he said.

The vote marks a new era in Finland, which for decades has elected presidents to foster diplomacy, in particular with neighbouring Russia, and opted not to join military alliances so it could soothe tensions between Moscow and NATO.

But Finns changed their minds about playing that role after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, in a rapid U-turn that led to the country joining NATO in April last year.

Now under the Western alliance’s security umbrella, the new president will replace Sauli Niinisto, who is retiring after two six-year terms in which he earned the nickname “the Putin Whisperer” for his previous close ties with the Russian leader.

Niinisto’s successor will have a central role in defining Finland’s NATO policies, while taking the lead on overall foreign and security policy in close cooperation with the government and acting as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

NO RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA

Both candidates are pro-European and strong supporters of Ukraine who have taken a tough stance towards Russia in their campaigns.

Lauri, a 36-year-old IT worker who voted in Helsinki, named Russia as the main task the new president will face.

“Obviously we all know that we are in a difficult position nowadays looking at Russia, the entire turbulence in the world today. So I think that’s the biggest threat and biggest issue that we have,” he told Reuters on Saturday, without naming his preferred candidate.

In an interview with Reuters last month, Stubb said there would be no Russian pillar in Finland’s foreign policy for now:

“Politically, there will be no relations with the president of Russia or with the Russian political leadership until they stop the war in Ukraine.”

Stubb is in favour of deep NATO cooperation, such as allowing the transport of nuclear weapons through Finnish soil and placing some NATO troops permanently in Finland. He does not support storing nuclear weapons in Finland, however.

“At times, a nuclear weapon is a guarantee of peace,” Stubb said in a debate on Tuesday.

Russia has threatened Finland with retaliation in response to its NATO membership and a defence cooperation agreement signed with the U.S. in December.

Haavisto, a former foreign minister who has also served as a U.N. peace negotiator and is known as a human rights defender, has called for a more cautious approach.

He wants to maintain Finland’s ban on nuclear weapons on its soil and considers a permanent NATO troop deployment unnecessary for the current security situation.

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